Thursday, April 17, 2014

"And though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, yet have not love, I am nothing”. (Reflections on loving service, on the day Jesus washed his disciples' feet, John 13:1-15)

There’s a great deal of concern that’s sometimes expressed about where the future generation—the young people today—are going to end up in terms of their religion, their faith, and their participation in the life of the church.

On some occasions, I’ve heard older folks, even some of my former colleagues at university, wonder out loud whether the younger generation will still consider themselves religious, or whether they’d value their faith. It does make me wonder myself sometimes.

For one, there seems to be a general indifference we see among young people when it comes to the church, to religion, and to faith. It just doesn’t seem as important to them as it is to their parents and grandparents. Indeed, every new generation seems less devout than the previous one.

A few of spring breaks ago though, I experienced something that didn’t only give me a great deal of hope, but somehow made me realize that perhaps those of us who are older and who often find ourselves worried about the religiosity of young people, might actually be missing something each time we think about the faith of the younger generation.

A couple of weeks before the break, I kept getting text and email messages from a good number of my university students who wanted to meet and talk. A few approached me right after class and were asking for appointments. I thought they wanted to talk about their grades—everyone seems to want to get an “A”, or as one kid said: “At least an A-.”

All I can tell you is that every single one of those appointments before spring break left me astounded, at times even overwhelmed. These students were asking for recommendations to groups that would take them to New Orleans (this was after hurricane Katrina), Appalachia, even South America. They were going to do volunteer work, skipping the traditional party break to help build homes, assist people who needed help, or just be with people.

They wanted to talk as well because they believed what they were doing was so much a part of their faith, but they didn’t quite know how exactly to make the connection, aside from remembering that—as one of them said to me—“Jesus said we should love our neighbor as ourselves”.

During one of our theology classes, one of them said to me: “I think what we’re doing is good. And it was great to be able to help build homes in New Orleans. I just don’t know if it was a properly religious thing”.

“A properly religious thing”. I thought it was a very interesting idea. What’s a properly religious thing anyway? Is it prayer, the rituals of the church, the doctrines we believe or the religious rules we obey? Or is it something more than that? Something bigger perhaps—something that includes all these things, and much more?

Jesus’ action in today’s Gospel, and the ritual we are about to witness at this evening's masses, give a definite, final, and absolute answer to that question: Is serving other people a properly religious thing?

Why did Jesus wash his disciples’ feet? You see, over and over again, the disciples kept missing the point he was making. Again and again, they failed to understand the message Jesus wanted to get across. Just a few days before their Passover meal, James and John had their mother go to Jesus and request that they sit at his right and his left when he finally inaugurated his Kingdom. This led to a big dispute among the disciples. Days before that, Jesus had called Peter “Satan” for trying to persuade him to abandon his mission. And a few moments from this scene, Judas will go to the high priests, frustrated that Jesus didn’t turn out to be the Messiah he had imagined, or wished, him to be.

These men wanted to define Jesus, his work, his life and his message in terms of something so narrow. For them he was the Messiah, the promised King of Israel, a powerful religious and political leader. That summed up for them what Jesus was.

In washing their feet, Jesus wanted to open their eyes and make them realize, once-and-for all, what he is really about. His action summed up for all time, and for all of us, what it means to believe in him, what it means to have faith in him, what our religion is about. It’s one simple word: “service”. For as he tells them: “What I have done for you; you must in turn do for one another”.

Service is at the heart of our faith, our religion. It is at the core of everything we do because “service” is the most concrete manifestation of faith. In another part of the gospel Jesus calls it by the name more familiar to us. He calls it “love”. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet in order to show in the most concrete way possible, what it means to love; it is service, it is giving oneself in all generosity to those whom we love.

Our celebration today is a reminder to all of us. Serving one another in love, especially the poorest and neediest among us—is as much a part of our religion and our faith, as the ritual we are about to see.

As I told my students after spring break, pounding those nails and building those homes were as much a part of our religion as their coming to church on Sunday. That is what tonight’s foot-washing is all about. To serve others, out of love for them and love for God is a properly religious thing.  Apart from loving service, most especially to those most in need, the rituals, doctrines, and rules of religion mean absolutely nothing.

As Saint Paul says, in words so familiar to all of us:

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am like a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing”.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

"Hope is patience with its lamp lit." (Tertullian) Reflections on the Raising of Lazarus, on the 5th Sunday of Lent, John 1:3-7,33-45.

"Have patience with all things, but most of all with yourself". 
(St. Francis de Sales) 

Waiting can be quite an uncomfortable experience. It can make us impatient, restless, anxious, and uneasy. Though pleasant on certain occasions - think of children waiting for Christmas day - it often isn't so, especially when what one is waiting for could spell the difference between life and death. So imagine the discomfort and anxiety Martha and Mary felt when, after sending word to Jesus that Lazarus their brother was ill, it takes Jesus two days before finally setting off on his trip to their place. 

When he heard he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was”. 

Why did Jesus wait that long to come to the aid of his dear friend? Why the delay? He probably would’ve been able to save him if he had hurried, then Lazarus wouldn’t have died.

This in fact appears to be the point of Mary’s statement, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. It wasn’t a statement of blame of course, but one of profound faith in Jesus’ healing power all tied up with a deep sense of sadness and regret that such power had not been there when it was needed most.

The gospel of course also tells us that by the time Jesus got there, Lazarus had been dead four days, so there wouldn't have been any point to hurrying. Still, why did he wait? Did he think the illness wasn’t that serious and Lazarus would get well?

Some Bible commentators have argued that perhaps Jesus waited so that he could be sure that Lazarus was already dead when he came. That way people would give more glory to God. A raising from the dead would definitely be more spectacular than a simple healing. But such an explanation won’t do.

It would be too insensitive, even cruel; it would be too unlike Jesus who always spoke of compassion and love, to be using a friend’s death to draw attention, even to something as important as his mission. We only have to recall how he refused the devil’s offer in the desert to make himself spectacular to realize that he would never do that to Lazarus. There has to be another, and better explanation. And there is.

In the Gospel of John—where today’s reading is taken—Jesus is always shown as acting on his own initiative and not on the persuasion of anyone else.

In another part of the Gospel—when wine ran out at the wedding feast at Cana, Mary comes to him and tells him of the predicament. While he does grant his mother's request, he nevertheless does it in his own time and of his own accord.

The story of Lazarus is no different. Jesus waited two days before going to Bethany not because he wanted to be sure Lazarus was dead, or to make a spectacle out of raising his dear friend from the dead.

The raising of Lazarus shows us that God does things in his own time, and that “his ways are different from ours”. It’s something we sometimes forget when we find ourselves wondering why some of our prayers take too long to be answered, why things don’t happen as quickly as we want them to, or why our world is still messy—two thousand years after the Son of God came to save it.

Many years ago, as a young student in seminary, I recall telling my spiritual director who was known to be an extremely disciplined man, that I wasn’t finding it easy to be faithful to my spiritual activities during vacation time, and that some of my weaknesses were proving to be quite intractable.

I expected a long sermon from him, or some kind of pep-talk at least, on the importance of being earnest about overcoming one's weaknesses and failures.

Instead, Father John shared with me one of his own struggles. It was something that didn’t’ simply catch me by surprise - since he rarely spoke of his own challenges - it has also served to remind me of something important that I still call to mind today whenever I experience myself struggling in other areas of my life, or when I have to counsel those who feel discouraged at the very slow pace of their effort to rid themselves of their faults and weaknesses.

Even after he was ordained, he told me, he occasionally failed to do one or more prayers that were meant to be done for the day. Priests are required to pray the Divine Office faithfully; but because he would sometimes get caught in too much work, he said he found himself occasionally skipping some of them. He said he also made a promise to spend an hour of silent prayer after he became a priest, but discovered it harder and harder to do so given the increasing amount of work he was given. 

“I was already in my early-30’s before I finally found a way to do the prayers of the Office according to schedule,” he said. And then added, “I was already in my early 40’s before I finally managed to really set aside an hour very early in the morning, for silent prayer. And to this day (he was already in his mid-60's when we had this conversation) I continue to struggle with many things. And I believe I will have to continue doing so for the rest of my life". 

“In God’s own time”, he said to me, “in his time all good things come to fruition”. Not in our time; but in his time, problems, difficulties, challenges—will all find their resolution. Our failings, our weaknesses, our sins—they shall all be finally overcome, in God’s time. We only need to cooperate, be patient, and keep faith and hope alive. 

"Hope", the ancient theologian, Tertullian, once said, "is patience with the lamp lit". 

Every so often, I encounter someone in Confession or counseling, telling me that he or she has not received communion for several weeks, sometimes months. When I ask why, the usual reply I receive is because the person isn't in a state of grace because he or she hasn't gone to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in a long time.

When I inquire further as to the reasons for staying away from the sacrament, I am always saddened, though I quite understand, when I hear, "Because I've found myself confessing the same sins, over and over again. I'm starting to get frustrated, and I don't want to feel like I'm simply going through the motions, going to Confession, so I can go to Communion, but knowing that sooner or later, I'll be falling again, committing the same sins I've promised no longer to commit". 

It is at those moments when I call to mind, and share what another wise old priest once told me: "Have patience. It is not for you to decide when you shall finally be rid of those 'thorns in the flesh' that you bear. It is only for you to do your best, to cooperate with God's grace, and to keep the fire of hope alive. Do not give in to despair. Be patient. Live in hope, and trust in God's wisdom".

St. Francis de Sales counsels us to be patient with all things, but most especially with ourselves. If God can be patient with us, we should, knowing that we do our best to cooperate with his grace, hope and trust in his mercy, and show patience with ourselves.  

How many Lenten seasons have we been through, doing the same practices over and over again, recalling our sins and God’s forgiveness, and doing penance for them, again and again? And yet, with every Lent that passes, we often realize we really haven’t gone too far in becoming the good Christians we would like ourselves to be.

But we do have a choice. We can give in to impatience and despair, and simply give up trying, or we can live in hope—that in God’s own time, our prayers will be answered, according to God's will, and we will be freed by Christ from our fault, our weaknesses and sins, just as he raised Lazarus from death. 

"I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will never die". 

Waiting can sometimes be an unpleasant thing. But if it’s God’s own time we await, we can be sure it will be worth it. Because God always keeps his promises, even if we sometimes feel that he takes a while to do so.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)